The Upper Mississippi River valley was not only the home of prehistoric Indians for thousands of years, but also has been the scene for over 300 years of recorded human history as well. Early explorers found the area along the big river occupied by groups of Native Americans.

Native Americans
The area that is now Prairie du Chien in southwestern Wisconsin and across the Mississippi River in the present area of Effigy Mounds National Monument was the land of several tribes of Native Americans. Many groups used the river as a travel and trade route (with tribes from other areas).
In the late 1600s, explorers found an Indian village in the nine-mile prairie where the present-day city of Prairie du Chien is found. The Fox and Sac lived and farmed the land near the river and hunted in nearby hills. The Dakota lived west and north in what is now northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota. The Winnebago tribe lived in river valleys across the river in present-day Wisconsin. For the most part, Native Americans lived in campsites and small villages near waterways.
The Winnebago, Iowa and Otoe have spiritual ties to the mounds and mound building culture. Many groups came to the Prairie du Chien area for trading and gatherings. These included the Potawatomi, Menominee, Chippewa, and Ottowa.
Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, and Louis Jolliet, a French cartographer born in Canada, are credited with the historic discovery of the Mississippi River on June 17, 1673.
They were guided on their mission by two Indian guides from the Fox Valley of Wisconsin. Marquette and Jolliet's exploration claimed the land along the river for France and the people who followed began the fur trade era, one of the most colorful chapters in the history of the area.
Fur Trade Era
In 1685, Nicholas Perrot established Fort St. Nicholas near present-day Prairie du Chien to protect the French interests in the fur trade. Pierre Paul Marin built a trading fort near the mouth of Sny Magill Creek in 1738, adjacent to the present Sny Magill Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument, for trade with Sac, Fox and Winnebago Indians. An Indian trail that extended west across present Iowa was also located in this area.
In 1781, Michael Brisbois, the first independent fur trader to live in Prairie du Chien, established a good working relationship with the Indians and the area soon developed into a profitable fur trading post. A man by the name of Cardinal built a grist mill across the Mississippi River from the present monument in Mill Coulee. He traded with the Native Americans exchanging grain from his mill for furs. The primary furbearer that trappers caught in this area was the beaver. The fur was used for fur felt hats in France. Other furs gathered included mink, muskrat, otter, wolf, raccoon and fisher from the far north.
John Jacob Astor set up a post of the American Fur Company at Prairie du Chien in 1808 on St. Feriole Island. This corporation was important during conflict between the French, British, Americans and Indians. Joseph Rollette managed the American Fur Company. In 1826, Hercules Dousman became John Jacob Astor's agent and 1843 built the "House on the Mound." Dousman and his descendants acquired considerable wealth which was used to purchase land and bring the railroad to the area in 1857. The Villa Louis State Historic Site includes the country home of Hercules' son, Louis, built in 1870, a fur trade museum and this historic Brisbois House, all located on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien.
Military History
Forts, Sawmills and Roads
In 1805, Zebulon Pike was sent to the area by the U.S. Army to establish a post after the Louisiana Purchase added new land west of the Mississippi River to the United States. Pike selected a fort site on the bluff overlooking the convergence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. Today Pike's Peak State Park is located here, Just south of McGregor, Iowa. Pike's journal makes no mention of the mounds of this region, although he very likely saw them.
A log fort was completed on St. Feriole Island by Americans in June of 1814. Fort Shelby, as it was called, was captured by the British the following summer and was renamed Fort McKay, in honor of the British commander. When the British left, the fort was burned and replaced by Fort Crawford in 1816. Flood waters made this location a poor choice for a fort site and this fort was later allowed to rot away. The military reservation for Fort Crawford extended into the present South Unit of Effigy Mounds.
In 1825, the U.S. government called for a Great Council of Plains and Woodlands tribes in an attempt to put an end to unrest and establish tribal boundaries. As many as 10,000 Native Americans and U.S. Army personnel met on St. Feriole Island. By 1830, a "neutral zone" was established as a buffer area between the tribes. This neutral zone was located north of the present national monument.
Congress authorized the construction of a new fort in Prairie du Chien, this time to be built on a terrace above the flood plain The timbers for the new Fort Crawford came from a sawmill site located three and one-half miles up the Yellow River. Colonel Zachary Taylor, commander of Fort Crawford at the time, sent Lieutenant Jefferson Davis to oversee the sawmill. Evidently this was an attempt by Colonel Taylor to break a budding romance between Jefferson Davis and Taylor's daughter Sarah. Wood from the sawmill was also used to build the Yellow River Mission School three miles west of the present monument.
In 1840, a military road was built across the present South Unit to connect Fort Crawford with Fort Atkinson forty miles to the west. Supplies were taken up the military road in wagons pulled by teams of mules. Fort Atkinson was built to protect the Winnebago Indians from rival tribes. In 1837, the Winnebago tribe was moved from Wisconsin to Iowa. The military used the road until 1849 when Fort Crawford was abandoned. Pioneers continued to use the road until 1860. The old military road is still visible as it passes through Effigy Mounds' South Unit.
The trail passes by the Marching Bear group, but these mounds were not mentioned in historical accounts of the road.

The Mounds

In 1881, Theodore Lewis and Alfred Hill began a project to map out the mound groups along the Mississippi River. The project was funded by Hill, who had ties with the railroad. Lewis mapped out several mound groups in the present monument. Lewis' survey shows 66 mounds including three effigies, on the terrace where the present-day Visitor Center is located. All but six of the original mounds were destroyed by farming activity by 1930. Lewis-Hill survey maps included mounds of the Fire Point Group, the Marching Bear group, and the Sny Magill site. In Harpers Ferry, which is a few miles north of the present monument, Lewis found a group of 900 mounds. Most of the mounds were destroyed by farming activity around the turn of the century.
Ellison Orr of Waukon, Iowa, was a businessman who had a strong interest in archaeology. He became the recognized authority on archaeology of northeastern Iowa. Ellison Orr's studies of the mounds and archaeological sites formed the foundation for interest in preserving mounds along the Mississippi River.
The Upper Mississippi River
National Park Idea
As early as 1917, proposals were presented to Congress to create a national park along the Mississippi River near McGregor, Iowa. The American Institute of Nature Studies in McGregor was a major force in the national park plan. The Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge was established in 1924. This refuge of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service continues to be the longest refuge in the lower forty-eight states covering 240 miles of the river. In 1929, the original national park proposal of 2,000 acres grew to include several counties along the river in three states. The National Park Service sent Superintendent Roger Toll of Yellowstone National Park to evaluate the feasibility of the park proposal. Although Toll didn't feel the area was of national park quality, he did believe that a monument should be established to preserve the prehistoric Indian mounds. With the support of local people from McGregor, the Iowa Conservation Commission began to purchase land in anticipation of the establishment of a federal monument.

Effigy Mounds National Monument

President Harry S Truman signed a proclamation on October 25, 1949, declaring Effigy Mounds a national monument. He used the 1906 Antiquities Act to preserve an archaeological resource for future generations. Park Superintendent William Kennedy moved into an old farm house located near the present residence buildings at the base of the North Unit. A remodeled chicken coop served as the first visitor center. The present visitor center was built in 1960.

Early Studies of the Mounds

Archaeologists formally excavated 17 mounds in the early years of the monument. The scientific information gained from excavations assisted with the interpretation of the prehistoric cultures.
Today, the primary goal of the National Park Service at Effigy Mounds is mound preservation. Mound excavations are not planned for the future. At the present time, 191 mounds are preserved within the monument, 29 of which are animal-shaped mounds. Fewer than ten percent of the estimated 10,000 mounds originally found in northeast Iowa still exist. Effigy Mounds National Monument gives visitors an opportunity to learn about an interesting prehistoric culture that lived in harmony with the natural world and built mounds of earth.


Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

151 Hwy 76
Harpers Ferry , IA 52146


(563) 873-3491 x123
Visitor Center front desk.

Contact Us